Monday, October 29, 2012

Book Review: Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy is a work of beauty. Every year I read a novel or two that take my breath away with their prose. Last year those were Please Look after Mom by Kyung-sook Shin and On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry. So far this year, this was the only book I’ve read and thought: wow! I’m sure I’ll squeeze another one in before 2012 expires.

What did I like about this novel? Well, it would be easier to say what I did not like; the fact that I wasn’t the one to write it.

At first the story seems quite simple. A couple, Joe and Isabel, a poet and his war correspondent wife, arrive for a holiday in the hills above Nice, France, accompanied by their young daughter and a friendly couple. So far so good, one would say. The thing is though, that there’s more to this group of people that at first meets the eye. To start with the poet he is an egocentric man who’s in love with his own voice and a womanizer. His wife doesn’t really like him anymore, and seems to be looking for a way to break up the marriage. The other couple hides a big secret, and as for the daughter, well, to put it in a Chinese proverb way: she was cursed to be born in interesting times, and under unusual circumstances.

Things get even more complicated when Kitty Finch, a young and almost ethereal woman, shows up all of a sudden in their holiday villa. She claims that there was a mix-up in the reservation dates and now she has no place to stay.

Well, normally, given the setting and the circumstances, one would offer her a cup of tea and sent her on her way. Isabel though things differently, so she invites her to stay with them, knowing all too well that, sooner rather than later, Joe will go after her.

The daughter, 14 year old Nina, can’t really understand her mother’s decision, but she can’t really question it, so she keeps quiet. Besides, she likes Kitty, with her green fingernails and her wide knowledge about flowers and plants, and the, to put it mildly, strange way she behaves.

Little by little the tension starts to mount in that holiday villa, but it’s not so much the agony that the reader comes to enjoy the most but the author’s masterful turns of phrase, the seemingly simple way she writes.

“Couples were always keen to return to the task of trying to destroy their lifelong partners while pretending to have their best interests at heart. A single guest was a mere distraction from this task.”

Well, that says it all. But if you are wondering whether there’s nothing more but beautiful language in this novel, I’d say, wait until you reach the last pages of it before you pass on a verdict. Even though the prose was good enough for me to proclaim Swimming Home as one of the best books of the year, the end did take me by surprise and made me think: That’s how you write a story; a very good story.

Highly recommended.

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